Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

Life and Death at the Old Drift

Victoria Falls (1898-1905)

The following text is adapted from 'Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls (1898-1905)', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2018. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.

Mules and Mail

A Post Office was established at the Controller’s Camp on the north bank of the Zambezi River and in operation during 1901, with the very scarce postmark ‘Victoria Falls, S Africa’ known between April and December 1901. The ‘S Africa’ in this context referred to the British controlled Southern African territories.

During 1901 the decision was made by Mr Sykes, the District Commissioner, to relocate the Post Office away from the river to the higher sand-belt at Constitution Hill, the location now becoming locally known as the Commissioner’s Camp.

“At the end of December [1901] Mrs Coisson tramped up to the new Boma. She saw the first brick house to be built, and linking this house to the old one on the Zambesi a telephone was installed.” (Watt, undated)

The site would later become more widely known after the name given to the relocated Post Office - the earliest example of the postmark ‘Livingstone, North Western Rhodesia’ dating from 28th January 1902 (Shepherd, 2008).

“In those days of the Old Drift the mail was supposed to run once a week. Zeederburg was contractor for the mail, and he used to bring it from the railhead in a Scotch cart drawn by mules or oxen. In the rainy season I have known his Majesty’s mails to be three weeks late from being unable to get across flooded rivers. The arrival of the mail at the Drift was announced by a bugle-call, and, whatever might be doing day or night, the whole of the inhabitants would troop down to the north bank. A dug-out or canoe would be sent across the river, and the bags brought back to a hut that served as temporary post-office. The mail would be emptied out of the bags on the hut floor, and everyone took a hand in sorting it out. There was, of course, much excitement in the process, with everybody hoping for letters from home, whether in South Africa or the Old Country. It was the great event of the week. The actual post-office was on the sand belt five miles [8 km] away, but the Postmaster rode in from there to receive or deliver the mails.” (Clark, 1936)

The first post-master at the Falls, Mr J Dobson, had been a Sergeant in the British South Africa Police, arriving at the Zambezi with Coryndon and Worthington in 1897. After a couple of years service at Lealui he came south to the Old Drift to take charge of the postal service in North Western Rhodesia. Watt recorded:

“By the time the post had been sorted, Mr J Dobson, the first official post master, would have arrived by horse from the sand belt where the District Commissioner’s Office and boma were situated. His post office room was in a wood and iron shed and the post master used to sleep in a cubby-hole of a room at the back. Business was conducted through a little window, because there was no room inside for customers. Dobson became the post master in 1898 and at the end of 1903 moved to Mongu. After Dobson was a tough Australian who used to get drunk very frequently and blow a bugle round the Old Drift; he lasted only a few months. An Irishman was later the post master and he also was addicted to drink.

Constitution Hill Post Office

The relocated Constitution Hill Post Office

“The incoming mail bags would be opened, sorted, cancelled and put into their respective bags depending on where they were going. These were given to runners for delivery to the next post office, where the same procedure was adopted. These services ran once weekly each way.

Victoria Falls to Kalomo, 105 miles [169 km], took 4 days.
Victoria Falls to Kazungula, 45 miles [72.4 km], took 2 days.
Victoria Falls to Lialui, 325 miles [523 km], took 14 days.

“At the Victoria Falls headquarters, which was on the north bank, a permanent staff of runners was maintained. Their uniform consisted of a long tunic of khaki smock with short sleeves and a belt, the embroidered inscription in large red letters was ‘B.S.A.Co. Mail,’ and to cap it all each runner wore a fez. For protection runners went in pairs, carrying a martial rifle plus a few cartridges - all of which were accounted for. For this job they earned 10/- to 15/- a month with rations.” (Watt, undated)

Mail runner

Early Mail runner

Clements, writing in 1963, recorded that mail runners regularly carried bags weighing forty pounds (18 kg), over distances of thirty miles (48 km) or more a day.

“The normal weight of the bag of mail they carried was forty pounds [18 kg] - but often went as high as sixty [27 kg] - and a good average of the distance covered in one day was thirty miles [48 km]. Special runners with urgent messages used to cover 80 and 90 miles [129-144 km] in twenty-four hours.” (Clements, 1963)

The uniform soon evolved into a dashing red flannel tunic, red shorts and red fez, earning them the name of the ‘Scarlet Runners’ (Clements, 1963).

"In the very early days, these runners were unburdened by clothing, except for a sort of kilt that formality and the strict prejudices of postmasters required them to wear for the mile or so after departure from and before arrival at the scattered post offices. Later they were given a standard issue of knee-length khaki shirt, leather belt and fez cap. The shirt was embroidered in red silk on the chest with the proud insignia 'B.S.A.C. -(British South Africa Company) - Mail'.

"As the demands of propriety became more exigent, a pair of shorts was added, but in place of the drab khaki shirt they wore a pillar-box red jumper. In Northern Rhodesia, they became more gay and their uniform of red flannel tunics, red shorts and red fez earned them the name of the Scarlet Runners." (Clements, 1963)

Delayed by Lions

Mr E Knowles Jordan, one of the administrative men sent by the Chartered Company to Kalomo, the capital of North-Western Rhodesia, recalled:

“Mailmen from outlying stations used to have exciting experiences, and one afternoon, towards sunset, a couple met two lions and were compelled to take refuge in a small tree on the outskirts of the town, in which they spent the night, roaring vainly for help and brandishing their spears. The lions scored the bark of the tree deeply in their efforts to reach the men but fortunately failed and went off at dawn. The mail bag was duly delivered intact.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1951)

Raised shelters were soon erected in areas of high lion activity, providing mail runners with a safe refuge from the dangers of the bush.

Mail Runner Shelter

Mail runner's Shelter


Clark, P. M. (1936) Autobiography of an Old Drifter. Harrap, London.

Clements, F. (1963) This Is Our Land, Baobab Books, Rhodesia

Northern Rhodesia Journal (July 1951) Early Days in Kalomo and Livingstone. Vol.1, No.4, p.16-23.

Shepherd, G. (2008) Old Livingstone and Victoria Falls. Stenlake Publishing.

Watt, D (undated) History of Livingstone (unpublished document held by Livingstone Museum, c1960s).

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